2014 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

January 11, 2014

Now that college football is over, nearly every football junkie will turn to the NFL for their playoff fix.

If Wild Card Weekend was any indication, the four games on the slate this weekend will be must-see television with each matchup being difficult to predict.

But as always, Around The Corn will take a stab at doing just that. Last weekend, I went 2-2.

Here are the previews and predictions for the AFC and NFC divisional round games.

AFC Divisional Round

(4) Indianapolis Colts at (2) New England Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 PM ET – CBS)

The Colts managed to pull things together in the second half after being down by as many as 28 points in the third quarter of last week’s game against Kansas City. But perhaps the biggest thing we learned about Indianapolis is that the team has fully moved on from the Peyton Manning era – Andrew Luck proved that he is both the quarterback and leader that the Colts hoped he would be when the organization drafted him two years ago. Against New England, Luck will need to be similarly poised in order to lead his team to a second playoff victory. New England’s pass defense is a bit better than Kansas City’s, but the Patriots have the worst run defense in the AFC in terms of yards allowed per game. Utilizing Donald Brown effectively could be the key for an Indianapolis offense that will need to score a lot of points in this one to have a chance.

New England may be the big dog in the fight with Tom Brady at quarterback, but the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC has shrunk significantly. Due to a slew of injuries, Brady just doesn’t have the corps of receivers that normally help make him look like Captain America. Several times in the second half of the regular season the Patriots struggled offensively, and against a better defense that could show up again in the playoffs. But the Colts don’t exactly have a lockdown defense, and Brady should be able to find his slot receivers across the middle quite a bit in this one. Defensively, New England needs to protect itself from being burned by T.Y. Hilton. The receiver’s 224 yards and two touchdowns were a huge reason the Colts were able to come back against the Chiefs, and Hilton’s speed presents a major threat to the New England secondary.

I think that the Colts have a fine opportunity to take down Brady and the Patriots because of their offensive firepower, but I’d be worried about the defense if I were an Indianapolis fan. Alex Smith tore apart the Colts’ secondary for two and a half quarters, and it would be silly to think Brady won’t be able to do the same even with a band of misfits at the receiver positions. I expect a lot of scoring, but ultimately the home team survives.

My Pick: 35-31 New England

(6) San Diego Chargers at (1) Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 PM ET – CBS)

The Chargers spoiled Andy Dalton’s chance at the third time being a charm in the playoffs, forcing the Bengals’ quarterback into three turnovers in a 27-10 drubbing that gave Cincinnati its first home loss of the season. But Peyton Manning is no Andy Dalton and San Diego more than likely won’t be celebrating before the final whistle blows, if at all. For the Chargers to keep the playoff train chugging along, Philip Rivers & Co. will need to continue playing well. San Diego surprised many by being able to penetrate Cincinnati’s run defense, which was second in the AFC giving up just 96.5 yards per game. Denver’s run defense is third in the conference, but if the trio of Ronnie Brown, Ryan Mathews (who is questionable for the game) and Danny Woodhead can continue to play at a high level, San Diego may end up having the fresher legs in the battle on the ground. Rivers wasn’t spectacular against the Bengals, but was efficient and took care of the football. He did that in San Diego’s 34-27 victory over Denver last month, too, and will need to do so again for the Chargers to keep pace with the Broncos.

Denver is the favorite to make it to the Super Bowl from the AFC, and for good reason. The Broncos, much like the Colts back when Peyton Manning was in Indianapolis, expect to engage in a high scoring affair and normally come out on top. Oddly enough, this game pits the AFC’s No. 1 passing offense against the No. 2 passing offense, and it’s not difficult to guess which team is at the top of the mountain. Manning has a plethora of receivers to throw to, many of which have avoided the injury bug this season. The run defense may miss the presence of Von Miller, but Nate Irving is a solid stand-in and should be able to mitigate San Diego’s rushing attack. While San Diego has the capability of taking advantage of Denver’s poor pass defense, the Chargers would probably have to expect an Andrew Luck-like performance from Rivers in order to win a straight up shootout.

Cincinnati played terribly last weekend, and the Chargers took advantage of that. But Denver won’t suffer from poor quarterback play in this one, and for that reason I think the Broncos have to be considered the serious favorite. San Diego proved it can beat the Broncos last month, but I don’t see Manning letting his team fall in its first playoff game of the year.

My Pick: 34-24 Denver

NFC Divisional Round

(6) New Orleans Saints at (1) Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:35 PM ET – FOX)

One of two teams to move on to the divisional round via a last second field goal, the New Orleans Saints aren’t going to be bothered by high pressure situations. The Saints aren’t the most talented team in the playoffs, but may have found a new weapon in running back Mark Ingram. The former Alabama running back’s 97 yards on 18 carries made him the leading rusher in the game and also the MVP for the Saints, who were put in a precarious position thanks to two interceptions by Drew Brees. Against the top pass defense in the NFC and the leader in interceptions, Brees will need to be careful not to give Seattle’s offense extra chances with costly turnovers. This game may not be the offensive shootout fans would have expected from a game featuring New Orleans a few years ago, because both defenses in the game are capable of shutting down a good offense. Still, decisions by Brees and the capability of Ingram against a better run defense will determine whether the Saints will create enough scoring opportunities to win.

I wouldn’t consider Russell Wilson an elite NFL quarterback, but he is an underrated asset for Seattle. He makes good decisions in the pocket and is helped out tremendously by a strong running game led by Marshawn Lynch that somewhat masks his contributions to the team. Fortunately for Wilson, his team is so good defensively that it may not matter that he is competing against the best quarterback left on the NFC side of the playoff bracket. Seattle’s defense means so much in this game because of what we saw in the Saints game last weekend. Seattle is the most dangerous defense in the league for quarterbacks like Brees who take a lot of chances through the air. If the Seahawks can force two interceptions like Philadelphia did, the offense is good enough to turn those mistakes into points. In a game where points may come at a premium and neither team is likely to break out to a huge lead, points off of turnovers could be the difference.

Frankly, I don’t think it would have mattered much who won the New Orleans/Philadelphia game last weekend. Seattle is superior to both teams and has a defense that can slow down either offensive style. I think that will be the case here and the Seahawks will live to see another week.

My Pick: 24-19 Seattle

(5) San Francisco 49ers at (2) Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1:05 PM ET – FOX)

San Francisco’s gutsy win against the Packers on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field last Sunday was a good thing for the 49ers, who will need to gut out every game for the rest of the playoffs in order to keep playing. I think that the verdict is still out on Colin Kaepernick as an NFL quarterback, but there is no denying that his athleticism makes it difficult for defenses to account for him. Because of his speed and Frank Gore’s running ability, the 49ers can grind it out on the ground against even the best defenses. It may not always look pretty, but the 49ers will often times score just enough points to get the job done. Such will be the case against Carolina’s defense, which gives up just 86.9 YPG on the ground. Last time these two teams met, the Panthers stoned San Francisco’s offense and held the 49ers to just nine points. While this contest will be dictated by the defenses, Coach Harbaugh’s team needs to crack the double-digit barrier to win this game.

Similarly to Kaepernick, I’m not quite sure about Cam Newton as an NFL quarterback, either. He still runs a bit too much for my taste, but the former Heisman Trophy winner can truly earn my respect by leading his team to a playoff victory. Carolina is the hottest team in the NFL right now, having won 11 of its past 12 games. But five of those victories have come by less than a touchdown, including a controversial win over New England on Monday Night Football back in mid-November. Unlike San Francisco, the Panthers don’t exactly have an explosive offense, ranking near the bottom of the league in several important categories. But the defense has been stout and stopping the 49ers run game could be enough to give Newton a chance to produce some magic. With Carolina having the No. 4 overall defense in the NFL and San Francisco having the No. 3 defense, something has got to give.

I don’t expect a lot of points to be scored in this game, and that favors Carolina. But I think that the Panthers are the one team playing at home this weekend that might actually be the underdog in its game. If Gore gets going, San Francisco could be difficult to stop in this one. Cam Newton will have to prove to me that he is capable of leading his team to victory in a meaningful game, and until then I’m not going to pick Carolina.

My Pick: 17-14 San Francisco

– K. Becks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *